Ann Arbor — Michigan softball is one win from a second-straight trip to the World Series.
Michigan, the nation’s second-ranked team and the No. 2 Tournament seed, is now the highest-seeded team remaining in the tournament after Georgia upset two-time defending national champion Florida on Friday.
The Wolverines had three huge defensive plays, first a challenging sliding catch in short center by Sierra Lawrence, then a stop at third by Lindsay Montemarano allowing her to throw out the lead runner at second, almost turning the double play. Finally three-time Big Ten Player of the Year Sierra Romero made a diving play to stop what likely would have been a single and then reached for the tag at second, Missouri’s final out.
Michigan’s defense, strong throughout the game, sealed a 5-3 victory over Missouri on Saturday in the first game of the Super Regional at Alumni Field.
“I didn’t think that ball was going to get by her for a second,” Romero said of Montemarano’s play, before describing her stop. “It was one of the dives you catch it perfectly because sometimes the ball kind of juggles in there. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to reach it. I was just trying to keep it in the infield, and I ended up grabbing it.”
Pitcher Megan Betsa said she had a “rough” pregame warm-up and later spoke about the importance of knowing her defense will always protect her.
Carol Hutchins talks about the Game 1 win over Missouri on Saturday.
“We talked all year about trust and trusting myself and trusting who’s behind me,” Betsa, 27-3, said. “I can’t remember which inning it was Romo (Romero) came out there and she was like, ‘Hey, we’re good players back here, let us do some work for you.’
“Those three outstanding plays in the seventh, what a way to go out. I trust them with everything I have and they did a great job when I didn’t really have my best stuff.”
The Wolverines will play Missouri at noon Sunday at Alumni Field in Game 2 of the best-of-three series. A win sends them to Oklahoma City for the College World Series, where they were the national runner-up last season, and a loss forces a third game at 3 p.m.
Missouri stranded nine in the game and had three errors.
“We didn’t play great, we still made a game of it,” Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. “We pitched pretty average and didn’t play very good defense. The margin for error is small when you get to this level of a game. The encouraging thing is, we didn’t play well, and we still had a chance to win."
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins assured Sunday’s game will be as tightly contested.
“We played some fantastic defense, made some great plays when we needed to, but this is the thing, I don’t feel a bit better than I felt before the game,” Hutchins said. “I told them, ‘This is like a fight and this is the first round and there’s still rounds to be played. We’ve got to enjoy this moment but not get too high or get too low and come back and expect a battle tomorrow and I expect it will be even more exciting than today.”
With Missouri closing in late in the game, Montemarano blasted a two-run home run off the first pitch to left field in the bottom of the fifth to give the Wolverines breathing room and a 5-2 lead. Montemarano had three RBIs, including a run scored after she was hit by a pitch.
“I ran pretty fast around the bases. I was pretty excited,” Montemarano said. “I normally don’t run very fast when I hit a home run, but I was really excited to get home to my teammates and celebrate with them. It’s always great because you’re doing it for them, you’re doing it for everyone.
“We’re all out there fighting, and I was looking to put a good swing on a good pitch. I wasn’t looking for a perfect pitch. I don’t even know where it was, I just knew it was somewhere in the zone, and I attacked it and that’s what we focus on, putting good swings on good balls.”
Tera Blanco gave the Wolverines their first runs on a two-run double in the first. Blanco, who had been nailed in the back by a pitch in the third inning, also made a terrific defensive play to end a threat by Missouri in the fifth when she laid out to catch a short ball.
Michigan is 50-5, while Missouri is 42-15. The teams met once during the regular season on March 3. Michigan won handily, 13-0 in five innings, and as Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said last weekend after winning the regional, she fully expected a different Missouri in the Super Regionals.
Missouri pitcher Paige Lowary, who pitched three complete games — all shutouts — in the Regionals last weekend, gave up seven hits, her total in the regionals.
She had a difficult first inning, hitting two batters and allowing three runs.
“I thought it was all about jitters in the first,” Earleywine said. “She was about to hyperventilate, really, honestly, in between innings from the first to second inning. She settled down a little as the game progressed, but she was still pretty amped up the whole way through."
Betsa never quite shook the effects of her rough pregame warm-up. She worked her way out of the first — she hit two batters and struck out two looking, including the third out — and the Michigan offense came on strong in the bottom of the inning. Betsa entered the game leading the nation with 11.3 strikeouts per seven innings and finished the game with six.
Michigan third baseman Lindsay Montemarano on her home run and defensive play Saturday.
In the first, Lawrence led off with a single to right, Romero walked and Kelly Christner singled to load the bases. After Kelsey Susalla popped out, Blanco doubled up the middle, scoring Lawrence and Romero, giving the Wolverines a 2-0 lead. Two batters later, Michigan’s lead swelled to 3-0 when Montemarano was hit by a pitch with bases loaded and one out.
Missouri, which stranded two runners in each of the first two innings, closed the gap in the top of the third. With two out, Chloe Rathburn hit a two-run home run as the Tigers pulled within 3-2.
Michigan was scoreless for three innings and maintained a one-run lead until Montemarano’s two-run home run. It was her ninth home run of the season.
Betsa struggled in the top of the sixth while facing Kirsten Mack. She made two consecutive pitches that went behind Mack, who then hit a solo home run, pulling Missouri within two, 5-3. Betsa is now 27-3.
“I had a little bit of dirt on my fingers just falling out of my hand,” Betsa said of the miscues on the pitches. “Just something I had to wipe off and move on.”
Earleywine said the message to his players before the game was to focus on how meaningful the season had been. He also said he told them to “not let Michigan have more fun than you do.” The message wasn’t about winning, but to enjoy the experience.
Hutchins has a similar approach. She always wants her players to have fun, but her takeaway from Saturday’s game is that they have no intention of letting up.
“The kids are fighting,” Hutchins said. “I’m most pleased they scratched and clawed, which is the only way you’re going to get through this tournament regardless of who we’re playing. That’s how you get through the Super Regional — you’re going to scratch and claw.
“There’s a game within the game, I talk about it all the time. The team that puts their head down, that’s when you get knocked out. We’ve got to keep throwing punches and throwing punches and not worry when things don’t go our way. There’s no worrying going on. We’re in a fight. We need to keep fighting and keep fighting and our fight today was fantastic.”
Michigan vs. Missouri
What: NCAA Super Regional.
Where: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor.
Tickets: Sold out.
At stake: Spot in Women’s College World Series.
Notable: This is one of eight two-team Super Regionals. In last year’s Super Regionals, Michigan swept Georgia 10-3 and 7-6.
Game 1: Michigan 5, Missouri 3
Game 2: Sunday, noon (ESPN)
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)